by Jim Killam | 10-minute read
With a new sermon series under way, we spoke with Lead Pastor Luke Uran about the book of Nehemiah, leadership and prayer for our church as we enter a new season.
Nehemiah would not make the list of Best-Loved Bible Stories. What caught your eye?
I absolutely love this book. This is the book that I spent the most time in throughout my servant leadership courses at Bethel Seminary.
What did that look like?
In my transformational leadership courses at Bethel Seminary, we studied the leadership characteristics of Nehemiah. He was able to motivate and inspire others because of the vision that the Lord had given him to accomplish. He was given an enormous task with a single purpose and single mission.
Through the life of Nehemiah and then especially through Jesus’ life and ministry, leadership starts with being willing to be a servant. I like what the author Patrick Lencioni said: “Servant leadership is the only kind of leadership. I’m hoping one day we won’t even need to say ‘servant leadership’ because it will be understood.”
Why is it so hard for some leaders to grasp that?
The real question is, why did you become a leader? For those who are struggling with the idea of being the servant leader, my sense is they were the ones who wanted the office and the title. They didn’t actually want to care for people, to serve people, to love people and ultimately move people to a better place.
What else about Nehemiah sticks with you?
Nehemiah is a man who was attuned to listening to the Lord, but he didn’t just stop there. He then acted on what the Lord had called him to do both in a physical and spiritual sense. The first half of the book is about rebuilding the physical walls of Jerusalem, but the second half is about rebuilding their faith in the Lord as he re-reads the Law to the people in Jerusalem.
There’s a determination in what the Lord has called Nehemiah to. And with that determination in the midst of opposition, Nehemiah shows the ability to pivot on a dime, following the Lord’s leading to what’s next. And he’s able to do that because of the fact that he is a man of integrity that is following hard after the Lord.
Listening to the Lord. Christians throw that phrase around casually sometimes. What does it look like for you?
This season has definitely forced me to do it a lot more. One of things I have been learning is giving myself the freedom to sit in the quiet, with my Bible, and to truly be praying. I have never heard the Lord audibly speak to me, but one of the ways he speaks to me is through Scripture passages that the Holy Spirit illuminates to me after prayer. And while I’m praying, I’m not doing Bible roulette, where I just flip the pages until they stop and then seeing if there is a verse there that pertains to me. Because when we do that, normally what we are looking for is a verse that sides with what we want to do anyway.
For me, listening to the Holy Spirit and discerning what the Lord wants is, first and foremost, making sure that there is nothing currently in my life that I am aware of that is deliberately disobeying what the Lord has commanded me to do. Because those things will get in the way.
Another way I listen is through my wife and other godly men and women who have a place to be able to speak into my life. Nehemiah had someone report back to him what had happened. I believe that the Lord used that individual to speak to him. We need to allow others who we know are walking closely with the Lord and living according to the Holy Spirit, who have fully surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ … we need to allow them to speak into our lives as well.
A lot of times we approach prayer as us talking to God. And we don’t allow God to speak back to us. One time, my father-in-law and I were sitting across the table from each other. I was asking him a bunch of questions about a topic that he knew a lot about. And his response to me was, “Well, first of all, when you ask someone a question, let them answer.”
I remember almost being shocked in that moment, like my hand had just been slapped. But now I think, Oh, Lord, how many times have I asked for you to speak, to reveal something, asked for wisdom and discernment, and then I just kept on talking rather than allow you to actually answer back? I think that’s true for a lot of us, if we’re honest.
One of the themes of this series is to discern God’s mission in our lives, whether that’s general or specific. Will you get into how to act on those specific callings?
The mission that we have all been given his to go and make disciples of all Nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But within that, the Lord has also given us individual burdens, whether through certain individuals or an organization. It looks different for everyone. Someone has a burden to be a teacher. Someone else might have a burden to be a full-time missionary. Or maybe a stay-at-home mom has a burden to homeschool her kids this year.
A lot of times the Lord gives us a mission, a vision that he has truly laid on our hearts, much like he did on the heart of Nehemiah. But then we just kind of leave it at that because we expect the Lord to do everything. And of course, he could. But we need to participate actively, too.
What I want to ask in this Sunday’s sermon is, what is that next step that the Lord is asking us to take to make that happen? A lot of times we get overwhelmed with trying to get from point A to point B. We just see the hundreds of things we need to do to get there rather than the next individual step we need to take to get closer.
You mentioned that Nehemiah faced opposition, which included internal opposition. I suppose there are parallels there. How do you as a pastor and leader discern unhealthy opposition from healthy give and take?
I listen closely to the critiques and criticisms of those who have a track record of encouragement in my life. And so for me, a healthy conversation is first of all knowing we have established common ground.
As the EFCA, we have a statement of faith. We have established that these are the hills we are going to die on, because we believe them so strongly. From there, as we have these conversations, the first thing I need to do is be willing to give someone permission to disagree with me, and not be offended by it. That’s what we are losing in our culture today. We have lost the ability to be able to disagree and remain either brothers and sisters in Christ or just cordial with other people.
What do you see God doing at First Free right now?
I feel like he is doing something fresh. He is continuing to do a work among us as his church. I would like to continue to remind the church to be a people of prayer. Because the way we combat the enemy is, we put on that armor of God and we go to battle.
I believe this is one of those seasons where the Lord is making the main thing the main thing again. He is using this opportunity to help us focus on what is important and essential. We are having these amazing Sunday mornings of worship out at Summerwood. We are gathering together, and it is not about worship style. People from the Classic service come on Sundays where it is being led by the Contemporary team, and vice versa. We are gathering together in that way to celebrate across a multigenerational church. It’s great to see the renewed spirit and the renewed community that is present there.
As I look at that, it is amazing to see the correlation with Nehemiah. He’s been given this mission from the Lord to rebuild. There are things that we’ve had to put on the back burner because of how busy we were. Now that we have actually had time to take a breath, I think we’re going to come out of this in a much better place in terms of ministry and in terms of creativity that was not there prior to COVID-19.
Your email last week announced a return to indoor worship services sometime this fall. Beyond all the logistics of that, what is your prayer for our church?
My prayer for the church is a lot of what I shared Sunday evening at our Meeting of the Members: First, that we would continue to be in prayer over the difficult decisions that are being made regarding reopening the building. And that we would pray for the ministries that are going to be operating differently this fall because of the Covid-19. Second, that people would be willing to extend grace. Not just to the leadership of the church, but to everyone. That includes the person that asks you to pull your mask up, or the person that posted something on social media that you may not agree with.
Can you say a little more about what “extending grace” might look like?
For me, it really boils down to John 13:34. Am I loving others in the way that Jesus has loved me? That’s a huge question, and it’s one that we so often fall short on. Am I willing to sacrifice for others the way that Jesus sacrificed for me?
And I want to be clear here. I’m not going to state my opinion one way or another on masks or any of the mandates. But when it comes to me wearing a mask, there are those who are susceptible. There are those who are at greater risk. There are those whom this affects much more than me or my family. It’s about asking that question: Am I loving others in the way that Jesus loved me?
And it doesn’t just apply to masks. There are times when people don’t necessarily agree with the “why” behind a rule. We all have the right to disagree. But we also need to say: “I want to love others the way Jesus loved me. So even though I don’t agree with a rule, am I willing to sacrifice for others and extend grace in that way during this time?
I interrupted you there. What else are you praying for our church?
I want us to be a people who never tire of praise. We ought to be celebrating the fact that we are able to gather together out at Summerwood and worship together on Sunday mornings.
But that’s not the only reason for praise. The Lord has continued to provide for us financially through this season in ways that only he can. And still, we’ve been able to help a lot of different ministries and donate to different organizations to help them through this time as well.
Finally, we are reminded as I’m going to be preaching this Sunday that we are to stay true to the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples. The mission of the church is not to gather in a building. Now, I do want to say again: I want to gather together, and we are moving that direction for the fall. But ultimately the mission that we’ve been given by Jesus is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
So, to sum it up, my prayer for the church would be that we continue to be messengers of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and that we would take full advantage of the opportunity that the Lord has given us to be givers of grace when there continues to be a shortfall in our culture today.